Book Banning Effort Unites Characters

by | Dec 17, 2022

“Answers in the Pages,” by David Levithan (Knopf), is an interesting and maybe ironic title choice for this new novel.   Because, while that phrase makes life sound cut and dried, it turns out that, as readers know, not all the answers ARE in the pages. We all bring our own world perspective, personal experiences and hopes and fears to a book — any book — as soon as we crack the cover.

This novel is about how a small group of parents respond to the very last sentence in “The Adventurers,” a novel assigned by Donovan’s fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Howe. Their discomfort hinges on the word “love,” and how they feel when it is used in connection to two boys.

Bottom line, they think this means the two boys are gay and that reading about (knowing about?) gay people (even though the sentence is open to interpretation and the book is not about the nature of their friendship) is “not appropriate” for fifth graders.

“Answers,” has three story lines, which is a common structure for middle-grade books and one I think can work particularly well for young readers.

The main story is about Donovan’s mom’s efforts to ban “The Adventurers.” The second story line is that actual book (so we get to read the book being challenged), which is an adventure story. And finally, there is a third story line that involves two fifth-grade boys falling in love. The reader isn’t entirely sure, until the very end, when this story line is taking place and how it ties in with the rest.

I will NOT give it away, but the reveal was one of my favorite parts of the book!

For those who might want some sign-posts to the three stories, the book designer has put a different symbol at the top of each chapter; those with Donovan and the book challenge have a book, the chapters from “The Adventurers” have an alligator (which makes sense when you read this book); and the chapters for the third story line have a turtle, because one of the characters loves turtles.

Meanwhile, the challenge triggers a formal process to determine if a book is inappropriate, and the principal and the school board follow it. There is a public meeting, with virtually no angry yelling, and everyone has their say, including the students.

I found this element of the story refreshing, to be able to read about a conflict and conflict management done in a sane and civilized manner.

Very late in the book Donovan and his mom finally talk about her concerns. Until this moment she has not talked to Donovan about what she finds objectionable, and, in fact, Donovan can’t even figure out what she’s upset about. His classmates tell him.

Even in this conversation with Donovan his mom resists talking about her specific concerns, only saying some things were “inappropriate.” Finally, Donovan forces the issue. He tells her that if she thinks he’s never heard about being gay before, she is wrong. Not only are there are plenty of LGBTQIA+ characters and performers on TikTok and other social media platforms, but several of his classmates have same-sex parents or older siblings who are trans or who are gay, and, in fact, there are gay students in his class.

Donovan’s mom argues that it’s not that she is against people being gay, but that fifth graders are too young to know if they are gay. After I finished the book and was mulling it over (as one does, with a particularly good book), it occurred to me that Levithan’s third story line — two fifth-grade boys falling in love — is the author’s sneaky (and creative and subversive) way of pushing against her argument.

Because book challenges and bans have skyrocketed (and because September 18-24 was Banned Book Week), “Answers in the Pages” is a particularly timely book to read. Banned books often touch on topics adults don’t think their kids are ready to know about.

However, that kind of thinking is often based, not on knowing the child or the age group, but hearkening back to one’s own childhood. We all know how much the world has changed since those of us with some gray in our hair were fifth graders, and using our own memories and experiences as a yardstick is doing a disservice to young readers of today.

I will leave you with this last observation, from Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Howe: “When you are not ready to understand something, you become afraid of it.”

Let’s be brave.

Alexandra the Great book cover

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